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Problems with promissory estoppel

Updated March 23, 2017

Promissory estoppel is a legal doctrine in contract law. The purpose of the doctrine is to prevent people from making empty promises. The elements of promissory estoppel are: First, that A made a promise; second, that A could foresee B would rely on his promise; third, that B substantially relied on A's promise to B's detriment; and fourth, that the only way to avoid injustice is for the court to either enforce the promise or reward damages to B to put her in the position she would be in if the promise had never been made. To invoke the doctrine of promissory estoppel, B sues A to recover the cost of her detrimental reliance on A's promise. Each of the elements of promissory estoppel can potentially pose a problem in a promissory estoppel case.

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The Promise

Assume that A lives in New York, and B lives in California. A tells B that he will give her a job if she moves to New York. One problem with promissory estoppel is determining whether A's statement to B was a promise. A could have been joking when he made the statement. He could have been incapacitated by illness or alcohol. B will have to prove that A's statement to her was a promise before she can move on to the next element.

Foreseeable Reliance

Assuming that A promised B he would give her a job if she moved to New York, the next element of promissory estoppel requires that A expects B to rely on his promise. If A offered B a job as a lawyer, but both A and B know that B has never attended law school, it would be reasonable for A to claim that he did not expect B to rely on his promise because B knew she was not qualified to take a job as a lawyer. However, if B was working as a lawyer at the time A made the promise, it would be reasonable for B to claim that A should have known she would rely on A's promise of a job.

Detrimental Reliance

The next element of promissory estoppel that could pose a problem is the requirement that B relied on A's promise to her detriment. Suppose B decided to accept A's offer of a job as an attorney in New York, and she sold her home, travelled to New York, rented an apartment, took the New York Bar Exam and appeared in A's office, ready to start work. If A told B he did not have a position for her after all, B may have a claim of detrimental reliance against A.

The Remedy

The remedy for promissory estoppel is for the court to either enforce the promise or require A to reimburse B for the expenses she incurred in reliance on A's promise. The problem with a court's enforcing A's promise is that A and B would have a strained employer-employee relationship if a judge were to force A to hire B. Therefore, if the judge found that B had satisfied all the elements of promissory estoppel, the court would order A to reimburse B for the cost of her reliance on A's promise.

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About the Author

Marilyn Lindblad practices law on the west coast of the United States. She has been a freelance writer since 2007. Her work has appeared on various websites. Lindblad received her Juris Doctor from Lewis and Clark Law School.

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